The Essenes were essentially a breakaway group of Pharisees, or at least they were probably theologically closer to the Pharisees than any other group, but they tended to lean more toward the mystical side of religion.
If you do a search in your online Bible, you’ll find that they’re not actually mentioned at all, and in truth, they didn’t actually have a long life-span and by that, I mean the Essenes were only on the scene from about 100 BC until shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD…so, the sect of the Essenes lasted less than 2 centuries.
I mentioned while we were learning about the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes that those religious groups had become incredibly corrupt, and it’s for that very reason that the Essene denomination came about. The Essenes were thoroughly unhappy with the polluting of God’s Word by the Pharisees and Scribes and how they’d bloated the Law of God with so many man-made traditions and rules and regulations. They were also heartily sick to their stomachs at the greed, corruption and political alignment of the Sadducees and their total ignorance of God’s Word. They were far more interested in filling their bellies, wielding power and living in luxury. The Essenes wanted nothing to do with any of them. They wanted to be absolutely devoted to God and live lives of purity and they believed that in order to do that, they needed to also live in obscurity and solitude. They were the monastics of Judaism.
They refused to have anything to do with the other religious leaders, and they went off by themselves to live in the desert to commune with God, study Scripture and live ritualistic lives and rituals of piety. Not a whole lot was known about the Essenes until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in Israel, opposite the Dead Sea.
From those scrolls a lot was learned about their day to day lives, their habits, disciplines, traditions and beliefs. They had their own High Priest, one who would rule over their order, they didn’t have much in the way of material possessions and their life was very communal. The only Essenes to be celibate was the High Priest otherwise, the men married and had children, however married Essenes was rare as it wasn’t an easy life for families. They raised flocks and grew food for themselves. They ate communally and at various times each day, they underwent ritual bathing…we’d call it baptism…but it was for ceremonial cleansing for personal purification. The ruins at Qumran are riddled with ritual baths for this very purpose.
The Essenes were very ascetic in their practices in that they ate in silence as an act of piety, they were very self-disciplined and practiced self-denial also as an act of piety. None of these practices are in the Law and were never required by God, but it tends to be something man does if he wants to please God. Like, “Look God, look how much I love You…I’m not going to talk from this time to that and I’m going to force myself to be uncomfortable or in severe discomfort and that’s how You know I’m especially pious and serious about serving You…what’s more, everyone else will think I’m especially godly as well.”
So while the Essenes hated the man-made laws and traditions of the other religious groups, they certainly had plenty of their own…just to prove to the others how much more religious and better they were.
One of the things the Essenes put a great deal of emphasis on, as I mentioned earlier, is in the mystical elements of their religion. They put a special emphasis on angels and they had a very strong position regarding Eschatology, the study of End Times.
The Essenes believed in the sons of light and the sons of darkness…of course they were the sons of light and the other religious groups were the sons of darkness. They believed in the coming of Mashiach and Redemption and the establishment of a righteous kingdom.
They didn’t believe in free will, they believed that absolutely everything is pre-ordained. That doesn’t mean that they believe we have no accountability for our actions and attitudes, but they believed in the Sovereignty of God over all things.
I mentioned earlier that the Essenes aren’t mentioned in Scripture, but there is a possibility that Paul had this group in mind when he wrote to the Colossian church who were being confused by some mystical, ascetic influences.
Colossians 2:18 & 23, ‘Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of angels, taking his stand on visions he’s seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind……These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.’
Scripture says that if we draw near to God, He’ll draw near to us (Jam 4:8)…not because we self-harm or self-denial. God doesn’t consider us more righteous or pious because we’ve inflicted harm or pain on our bodies or because we’ve denied ourselves chocolate or coffee or time online. Those things don’t make us righteous or pious.
Going without something because it causes us to sin or to ignore God may develop self-discipline, but they don’t make us righteous.
The way we’re brought near to God is through the blood of Jesus.
Ephesians 2:13, ‘But now in Christ Jesus, you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.’
That’s how we become close to God…through the blood of Jesus shed for us. Anything else is an effort in futility, something we can claim to be the result of our own efforts and as we know, our own efforts aren’t good enough. We can’t even boast about having put our faith in Him, because even that is a gift from God! (Eph 2:8-9)
So Paul was instructing the Colossian believers to reject anyone teaching about reverencing angels and also against monastic ascetic practices such as self-abasement, severe treatment against their own bodies, he taught them to ignore their visions and self-inflated self-made wisdom from their pious man-made religion. Don’t do it. Was Paul talking about the Essenes? We don’t know, but what he described sounds very much like them, and it sounds very much like a lot of other religious groups as well.